Two weeks ago, I wrote asking for the charity of your prayers for me and my brother bishops during our annual Fall meeting in Baltimore. These prayers were needed as we bishops intended to discuss and vote on new protocols for bishops in cases of the sexual abuse of minors. There were occasions during the meeting when the power of your prayers was evident to me. I thank you most sincerely for your concern for and love of our Church.
We bishops spent the first day of our gathering in prayer, penance and fasting. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, we listened to the testimony of two victims of clerical abuse and felt their never-ending pain. Through them, we also felt the pain of all who ever fell victim to sick and sinful priests and bishops. Despite their horrific suffering, those two victims actively participate with lively faith in the life of our Church. Another speaker was a young single mother who spoke to us about the consequences of some bishops’ mishandling of these cases. She pointed out how this has caused the Church to suffer. Her call to the assembly was to get it right NOW.
As has been widely reported, at the very start of the meeting, the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, made an unexpected announcement. The Holy See requested that the bishops not vote on two proposals: the Standards of Episcopal Conduct and the Special Commission for Review of Complaints against Bishops for Violations of the Standards of Episcopal Conduct. These proposals, which originated in the administrative committee of the Conference, had been sent to all the bishops for their consideration prior to our meeting. I went to Baltimore prepared to vote in favor of both of them. It seemed to me that their intent was to hold bishops, and their authority, accountable and to establish a Commission composed mostly of the laity to review complaints against bishops.
Needless to say I was greatly disappointed by this intervention on the part of the Holy See. I felt that we bishops had to give a clear signal to the faithful that we would take whatever means necessary to rid the Church of this darkness. The request that we not vote on those proposals in no way restricted or hindered our discussions which continued for the next three days though.
The Holy See has called for a meeting of all the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences throughout the world in February 2019. They requested that we not vote on our proposals so that the concerns of the American bishops be better discussed at the February meeting of the entire Church. Additionally, the Vatican raised questions about the canonical validity (Church law) of what the new protocols proposed.
It is easy to forget that the Catholic Church is a worldwide community of faith and that uniformity in law and practice is necessary in order to protect and guarantee the unity of the Church. Also, the request not to vote came to us from Peter who has been given to us by Jesus as the Head of the Church. To him we owe our obedience. “You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, Cardinal DiNardo issued a statement in which he promised to take the concerns of the American bishops to the February worldwide meeting in Rome. His statement is clear that he will represent our suggestions and recommendations. While I was terribly disappointed and embarrassed by the failure to vote, I am confident that the protocols will get a hearing at that meeting.
Despite the suggestions of the negative pundits who dominate the media, this situation is not the end of the Church. For example, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was titled, THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS WHO COULDN’T. I disagree. The bishops COULD but were asked by Peter to wait until the February meeting at which he will be present.
There is no institution in these United States which has responded so vigorously to the sexual abuse of minors as the Catholic Church has with our Safe Environment Programs. In our diocese annually we prepare and teach all adults who have contact with children and teenagers; we finger print them; do background searches and instruct them about sexual abuse. Is this happening in our public schools? In community centers? In local sports teams? The answer is NO. Can the Church do better? The answer is YES. And, in case you don’t know, all of this is monitored by an outside agency who checks the compliance of our diocese each year.
As we gather this week for our annual national holiday, Thanksgiving, may we pray for our Church and be grateful for all the good she does. Last Sunday morning I stopped at Infant Jesus Parish in Woodbury Heights to support the Saint Vincent de Paul Society who prepared 150 food baskets with all the trimmings and a turkey for the less fortunate in our community. I watched an army of people, including children and teenagers, happily do this. This is an example of the Church at her best. And, that same story was repeated all over this diocese in parish after parish.
Also, don’t forget to pray for our country — ever grateful for the gift of freedom that we enjoy while too many in the world do not. And, pray for your family to strengthen its bonds and heal its wounds.
Be thankful to God and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, D.D.
Bishop of Camden